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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 45 - May 2005   
 The logic of the ‘leap forward’
 Profile of the Seventh Framework Programme
 Eastern outpost of the European Research Area
 The agricultural tradition
 Birth of Europe-backed research
 Out of Africa
 Campylobacteria under the microscope
 When distant worlds meet
 Researchers take centre stage

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Title  Coping with life on the outside

The door slams shut – and who can say when it will really open again? Just how do women prisoners reintegrate into a society that has often previously rejected them? The partners in the European MIP (Women, Integration after Prison) project tried to find some answers to these questions in six countries – Spain, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, France and Hungary – by considering the people, infrastructures and legislation that may be available to help them. They spoke at length with female prisoners, both before and after their release, and interviewed a range of people working within or close to the prison system, such as prison warders, judges, probation officers, social and voluntary workers. Their detailed, in-depth and remarkably well-coordinated work sheds light on a form of social exclusion that also shows gender differences. 

Women’s prison, Metz (France). © Jane Evelyn Atwood
Women’s prison, Metz (France).
© Jane Evelyn Atwood
"I attended primary school. But after that I was forced to leave because my parents didn’t have enough money. I started to work at the age of 14 and then got pregnant. I worked for more than 14 years. My husband left me and my debts started piling up. My daughter was going to a private school but I could no longer afford to pay for it. So when I was offered a trip to the Netherlands I accepted. I started trafficking drugs all over Europe, earning between $5 000 and $6 000 a time. Then I was arrested.” This is the personal story of a convicted female Italian drugs trafficker, but a story that has much in common with many others. Prisoners, men and women, often suffer a similar fate: exclusion. Prisons are primarily places for people who do not conform, rejected by society, considered by some as undesirable because they are illegal immigrants or asylum-seekers, belong to ethnic minorities, or suffer from countless other handicaps.  

Social divides
This disparate population is often poorly housed, unemployed, undernourished and uncared for. Within this group it is often the women who are the poorest. Earning lower wages and usually with children to provide for, they are frequently the first victims of unemployment. In Germany, most of the interviewees(1) were unemployed before their detention, in debt and with a drug or drink problem. The situation is much the same in France, Spain and Italy. According to the British statistics, one-tenth of the women starting a prison sentence were homeless and one-third of those who did have accommodation and some possessions lost everything while serving their sentence. Most women have financial problems and debts that get worse while they are inside. The British researchers also found that about half of the women prisoners interviewed had been victims of violence and, in one in three cases, of sexual violence. This violence, often experienced since childhood, is also an important factor in Spain, Germany and Hungary.  

Three profiles
Prison conditions are cramped. In Spain, women prisoners complain of everybody being thrown in together – all ages, for all crimes and serving sentences of various lengths. “In prison, there were 200 of us. That means you never have a moment on your own. I like some peace and quiet. I need independence and a little privacy,” insisted one prisoner.

“Everywhere you see this alarming lack of human resources, material resources and very serious overcrowding. This often results in the violation of the strict human rights to which prisoners are entitled. The working conditions of prison staff also seriously undermine the quality of their work,” explains Marta Cruells of the Spanish organisation SURT, and project coordinator.    

But overcrowded by whom? French researchers identified three types of women prisoners: classic deviants, with many social handicaps and victims of exclusion, usually serial offenders with a drug problem, essentially comparable to their male counterparts; women who have often been the victim of violence or who are accomplices in crimes committed by their partners, who are generally in prison for the first time and for a serious offence (murder, child abuse, drug trafficking, etc.); and women who do not fit the pattern, professionally integrated, educated but, once again, imprisoned for a serious offence. These three profiles show the social, penal and individual characteristics that together illustrate the different routes that lead to prison. In one way or another, they are all marked by exclusion.

Powerless but responsible
Women’s prison, Metz (France). © Jane Evelyn Atwood
Women’s prison, Metz (France).
© Jane Evelyn Atwood
As varied as they may be, all these prisoners are women. The British researchers stress the extent of their dependency on men, for whom or because of whom they find themselves on the wrong side of the law. The dependency is not only financial or emotional, but is also cultural. “Men have shaped my life. I lacked self-confidence. Through marriage, having a man was an achievement. My second husband told me that I was stupid and skinny and that was why I had such low self-esteem. I was attracted to that kind of man. Now I believe I have opened my eyes as far as women’s rights are concerned and also male power.”

But even if they have no power, in prison women’s responsibilities cannot be ignored. They are often responsible for providing for their children, or their family, and have to give them any meagre wages they may earn. Women prisoners everywhere feel guilty, worried and plagued by questions: Where are my children and who is going to look after them? Are they going to go off the rails too? What do they think of me? Prison officers see in what they describe as the ‘sorrow of mothers’ one of the most painful aspects of their incarceration. “I am sad because of my children. We did not spend many years together. Now they are grown up. It is a strange situation.”   

Unsustainable relationships
Regional detention centre for women, Joux-la-Ville (France). © Jane Evelyn Atwood
Regional detention centre for women, Joux-la-Ville (France).
© Jane Evelyn Atwood
Among the reasons why relationships with children and family deteriorate are the prison regulations governing visits, telephone calls, etc., coupled with geographical location. People without the proper identity documents are unlikely to travel and the cost of international phone calls can be expensive. In Hungary, Germany and Spain access by public transport to a number of women’s prisons is particularly difficult as they are located outside of towns. Consequently, many detainees ask to be transferred to better-located but overcrowded detention centres. The frequency and length of visits vary from country to country – from an hour a week to two hours a month. In such circumstances it takes strength, on both sides of the bars, to maintain positive relationships. “My family and children visited me regularly for seven years. Then they stopped, because the meetings had become totally impersonal. Two hours is not enough to sustain a meaningful relationship. Those outside do not tell you the truth about things because they are afraid of worrying you. And the person locked up does not want to complain. The result is that there is no honest communication.”   

In several countries, special measures are in place to maintain more concrete links with close friends and relatives. In Germany, for example, some prisoners are allowed to go on day release to look after their children or a family member who is ill. In Hungary, the LER (Lenient Executive Rules) system allows some prisoners to spend one weekend a month at home. Other schemes exist in France and Spain.

Working on the outside
Employment is a way of maintaining links with society. This does not apply to work in the prison itself, which is more concerned with occupying than educating prisoners who are assigned tasks such as cleaning, washing, cooking or perhaps simple assembly or packaging work. Some 60% of women prisoners in Hungary, 40% in France, 33% in Italy, and 90% in the United Kingdom have jobs of this kind during their imprisonment, at least for some of the time. ‘Real’ work – which is much less common – refers to work outside the prison walls. In Spain, the open-prison system allows some women prisoners to work on the outside during the day. “Nobody knows I am in here. People invite me for a coffee after work, but I have to say that I have to go to the hospital to visit my sister who has cancer. Sometimes I am invited out to the restaurant, but again I have to refuse. I would like to tell the truth, and explain that I had problems in the past but that I am a new person now, but I always have to lie.”

Although such situations are not always easy, they are a positive step towards reintegration. The vast majority of those active in the prison system see preparing prisoners for a successful release as an essential mission of a prison. “We need more resources to meet these needs,” says one Spanish prison governor. “Human and economic resources – but with the size of the present prison population it is very difficult to achieve results.” 

Training is also seen as a path to the labour market, although few actually receive it. Germany has initiated basic training (EDP qualification) which prisoners can continue to pursue after their release. Computing is taught in Germany, Spain and Hungary while training in computer-aided graphics and desktop publishing is available in Italy and at one German prison. Several countries offer language courses for foreigners. Training in the new technologies is available in the United Kingdom, the most advanced country in this field of learning (and in prison policy in general). It is not unknown for women serving long sentences in the UK to leave with a university degree. 

In some cases, female prisoners serving long sentences benefit from a transitional system in the two years prior to release. This enables them to work outside the prison as a means of progressively reintegrating into everyday life. As to the others, very few receive help in finding accommodation – always a crucial factor – a job, or any psychological assistance on their release. In the United Kingdom, prisoners can request personal assistance with any problems relating to drugs, drink or sexuality, for example, and some prisons have job clubs to help inmates reply to a job offer or attend an interview. In Germany, ex-prisoners have their rent paid for one year by the public authorities, and the social services and NGOs are very efficient in finding accommodation. Budgets are being cut just about everywhere, however, and assistance of this kind is very much under threat.

The trauma of being free
Freedom is not painless. Coming out of prison often means entering a world that has changed a great deal. Many former prisoners admit to feeling very disorientated for several weeks if not months after release, suffering from depression, insomnia and nostalgia for the daily routine of prison life. Many experience distrust of others and especially of institutions. They find it difficult to organise their time, set priorities, listen to people, take initiatives and make decisions. Everyday social skills have been blunted by the experience of prison. After tending to idealise family relations while locked up, once confronted with the reality they find them very complicated, especially if children are involved. Their financial situation is often even more difficult than before they went to prison. Many of them have no accommodation of their own and return to live with their parents, once again finding themselves in a situation of dependency. Few find any kind of job at all within the first month or two of release. A prison record does not help matters and in most countries it is a real barrier to employment.

"Prison punishes, destroys and marginalises. It encourages childish behaviour and disconnects from the social network,” is the view of one prison governor. “How do I see myself one year from now? In prison, yet again! One year older,” says one prisoner.

It was to identify some concrete steps to help remove such a sense of despair that the researchers with the MIP(2) project put their questions, listened to the replies, analysed the figures and compared prison policy. Herta Toth, a member of the Hungarian team, believes that “the situation of women prisoners in the six countries studied is not at all homogenous, but their problems are similar. Certainly more attention is paid to their situation in the United Kingdom than elsewhere. Nevertheless, in most countries, and in Hungary in particular, people are beginning to listen more particularly to the problems of women prisoners – such as the domestic violence of which they are so often the victims. But the attention they receive individually after leaving prison is insufficient everywhere. This is due to a lack of coordination between those who should, in principle, be looking out for them. Everywhere there is a lack of resources, personnel and time.”

"Integration is a task that transcends the prison walls”, the MIP project partners conclude. “We need the co-operation of the community as a whole and must face the risk – the reality even – of a situation in which prisons become places of poverty management, locking up people who are really a case for the social services.” 

(1) The studies were carried out by interviewing women in a number of prisons. Although significant in their findings, the resulting data should not be regarded as statistics. 
(2) The acronym MIP comes from the Spanish Mujeres, Integración y Prisión .

Printable version

  Prisoners, male and female

The gender divide transcends the prison walls. In most countries, there is no specific mention of women prisoners’ needs in the prison policy reports in which the populations are globalised. The only exception is maternity (births and babies in prison), even though this only concerns a minority ...

  • All the national reports and the final report are accessible on the website. A conference presenting the project results was held in Barcelona on 8 April.

  • Marta Cruells – SURT (Women’s association for professional reintegration), Barcelona 

      Prisoners, male and female

    The gender divide transcends the prison walls. In most countries, there is no specific mention of women prisoners’ needs in the prison policy reports in which the populations are globalised. The only exception is maternity (births and babies in prison), even though this only concerns a minority of women prisoners. Why?

    Although there are far fewer women then men prisoners, making up between 4% and 8% of the prison population in the countries studied, this does not prove to be to their advantage. Women prisoners are often placed in a unit annexed to a male prison which is an obstacle to their access to specific activities and services – such as medical services, anti-drug addiction programmes, work and training.

    They may also end up in detention centres for women. Although many such centres are located outside of towns, which pose difficulties in terms of visits and outside employment, they are at least designed and managed with a female population in mind. In Germany, for example, prison governors believe that women prisoners do not need such stringent surveillance and security standards as men prisoners.

    “Although some specific initiatives have been taken, such as the Women’s Offending Reduction Programme in the United Kingdom, or other projects for women in Germany, few countries pay attention to equality between men and women when it comes to prison populations. Europe nevertheless recommends that such a policy should be applied in all fields,” concludes Marta Cruells, “Also, our research shows that imprisonment is even more traumatic for women than for men. They have less support from their family, are viewed more negatively by society, suffer on account of their children, and have more difficulty gaining access to activities, training, social or psychological assistance, etc.” 


    • All the national reports and the final report are accessible on the website. A conference presenting the project results was held in Barcelona on 8 April.


    • Marta Cruells – SURT (Women’s association for professional reintegration), Barcelona